BY GERALD IMRAY AND CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA
PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — A South African judge on Friday found Oscar Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and declared him not guilty of murder. Prosecutors said they were disappointed by the ruling but would decide on whether to appeal only after sentencing.
Judge Thokozile Masipa said there was not enough evidence to support the contention that Pistorius knew Steenkamp was behind a locked toilet door in his home when he shot through the door in the predawn hours of Valentine’s Day last year. Masipa said prosecutors had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Pistorius intended to kill Steenkamp.
The killing by a national sports hero stunned South Africans, and reactions on the verdict were mixed.
“Well I think the verdict is shocking to say the least,” said Leonard Gray in Port Elizabeth, Steenkamp’s home town. “I think there is clear evidence and indications that he committed murder in this case. … I feel sorry for Reeva Steenkamp’s family because they not going to get any closure because this guy is basically getting away with murder in my opinion.”
However Shrina Padayachy, also in Port Elizabeth, called the judge’s verdict “fair and just because it’s the prosecution that must prove beyond a reasonable doubt and from what I gather and seen they haven’t.”
Free again after the judge extended his bail on the same terms, the double-amputee Olympian left the courtroom surrounded by police officers. He must return on Oct. 13 when his sentencing hearing will start, Judge Masipa said. Pistorius and his family didn’t immediately comment.
The red-robed judge earlier ordered Pistorius, 27, to stand before she delivered the formal verdicts on the multiple counts against him, and said they were unanimous verdicts, meaning she and her two legal assessors agreed on the findings. The conviction of culpable homicide, or negligent killing, can bring a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, although legal experts pointed to five years as a guideline.
Some legal analysts said they understood why Pistorius was found not guilty of premeditated murder but were surprised that the runner was not convicted of murder. The prosecution also was troubled by the not guilty verdict for murder.
“We believe there is sufficient and credible evidence to secure a conviction” on a murder charge, said Nathi Mncube, spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority. He said, however, that any decision to appeal the judge’s ruling would come after the case is “concluded” with sentencing.
Unlike many other times during the trial that began on Mar. 3, Pistorius showed no emotion as he stood in his dark suit with his hands crossed in front of him for the judgment. The athlete was hugged by relatives when the judge ordered a recess soon after announcing her verdicts.
Masipa said Pistorius’ sentencing hearing would begin on Oct. 13, when both sides will be able to call witnesses to argue ahead of the judge’s ruling on if, or for how long, Pistorius is sent to prison for negligently killing Steenkamp.
The sentence for a culpable homicide conviction is at the judge’s discretion, and it can range from a suspended sentence and a fine to up to a maximum of 15 years in prison.
After the verdict, Pistorius sat with his sister Aimee on the wooden bench where he has spent most of his six-month murder trial. She put an arm around his shoulders and spoke to him.
For the first time in the trial, Pistorius had left the courtroom for an adjournment before his jail was extended by going down the stairs that led to the cells in the courthouse. That’s because Pistorius’ bail had expired after his conviction and the judge was considering whether to re-grant him bail. Pistorius’ lawyer, Brian Webber, said Pistorius was taken to a “holding position.”
Defense lawyer Barry Roux told the judge that Pistorius should stay free on bail until sentencing because he had complied with bail conditions imposed on him after he killed Steenkamp. Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel, however, said Pistorius now had more reason to flee because he had probably hoped for an acquittal during the trial.
“Now he knows for a fact that, `I’ve been convicted of a serious offense and imprisonment is probable,'” Nel said.
Masipa ruled that it was not in the interests of justice to deny Pistorius bail.
Members of Steenkamp’s family, including her mother June and father Barry, were in court to hear the verdict in the 29-year-old model’s killing. A close friend of Steenkamp’s cried in court during the verdict.
The judge ruled that the athlete was guilty of unlawfully firing a gun in a public place when a friend’s pistol he was handling discharged under a table in a restaurant in Johannesburg in early 2013 – weeks before Steenkamp’s killing.
Pistorius was acquitted on two other weapons charges, including a count of firing a gun in public and a count of illegal possession of ammunition in the Pretoria home where he killed Steenkamp.
Pistorius fatally shot Steenkamp in his home in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14, 2013. He said he mistook her for an intruder, while the prosecution said he killed her intentionally after an argument.
On Friday, armed security officers stood at each of the three entrances to the courtroom, while others stood near the red-robed judge as she explained her verdicts from her dais overlooking the court. There were also paramedics in the courtroom.
AP journalist Fazlur Philips in Port Elizabeth contributed to this report.